U.S.-China Climate Relations: Beyond Trump
U.S.-China Climate Relations: Beyond Trump

Jackson Ewing is the Director of Asian Sustainability at the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) in New York, where he leads projects on environmental cooperation, responsible resource development, and international climate change policy. This piece is part of a special RCW series on the U.S.-China geopolitical relationship. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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The days of cooperative climate change action in Washington and Beijing were short-lived.

After decades of friction in the climate arena, the United States and China spent the last three years of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term in office building a partnership that caught even close observers by surprise. In a March 2016 joint presidential statement, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping declared climate change a “pillar of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship” and committed to ratifying the lauded Paris Agreement. The countries were by then drawing on more than two years of bilateral agreements on clean energy and emissions reduction targets, along with subnational agreements between cities, states, and provinces to bolster technical cooperation in areas ranging from carbon pricing to clean energy to sustainable urban infrastructure.

This cooperation reversed a history of recriminations and posturing that long defined the Sino-American climate change relationship. China would often emphasize its continuing poverty challenges, development needs, and relative lack of historical culpability for the climate problem, while the United States trotted out the common refrain that holding negotiations is well and good, but ultimately pointless if China fails to reduce emissions in internationally verifiable ways. For years, this divide between Beijing and Washington stubbornly persisted.

The Obama-Xi rapprochement was significant because it moved past these arguments and looked for opportunities in a nascent global climate regime based on voluntary commitments by all countries regardless of development levels. This played to the preferences of both China and the United States to chart their own paths without feeling overly constrained by international accords. It also dovetailed with China’s growing determination to solve its domestic pollution crisis, and with a realization in both capitals that clean energy was an economic growth sector.

The Trump presidency has ended this relatively brief period of national climate cooperation between the world’s two largest emitters. U.S. President Donald Trump has removed any mention of climate change from the executive branch agenda, and has moved to dismantle the U.S. Clean Power Plan (CPP), open up federal lands to fossil fuel exploration, reduce vehicle emissions standards, and broadly defund and de-emphasize environmental regulation and enforcement. Whether or not he attempts to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which is not a straightforward process, Trump is already disregarding the American commitments detailed in the pact.   

Rather than sending the United States and China back to their adversarial positions of the past, Trump’s moves have taken climate change off the bilateral agenda completely. This eliminates a valuable mutual confidence-building measure and sets back global climate change efforts significantly.

In this context, climate change hopefuls can take solace in three countervailing trends.

China Carries On

China has no intention of moving away from its climate goals just because a new administration has taken office in Washington.

Addressing conventional pollution has become a core part of Beijing’s strategic calculations. The scale and scope of outcries against air pollution and environmental stress -- which by some measurements lead to 1.6 million deaths per year -- have prompted Chinese leaders to respond with stronger environmental regulations and enforcement along with transformative energy goals. It will launch later this year a national-level emissions trading scheme that will immediately become the largest system pricing greenhouse gas emissions in the world and create incentives for companies to lower their emissions profiles for years to come.

Beyond pollution control, China is favoring higher-value tech and services sectors as it seeks to transition away from its economic base in heavy industry and material exports. It is weaning itself off the expensive fossil fuel imports that drove its industrialization, and it is rolling out solar, wind, and nuclear power on scales never before seen. This is leading to swift reductions in coal consumption, and making it a clean energy export powerhouse.

Fears that China will use American backpedaling to justify shirking its new climate commitments are misplaced. The U.S. partnership has been only a peripheral force in China’s drive to a cleaner energy future, and pales in comparison to its domestic goals. China finds more ambitious climate change policies palatable because reducing greenhouse gases aligns with its more proximate goals of cleaning up its domestic environment and evolving toward a new economic model.

China will take decades to transition to energy and manufacturing systems that do not severely compromise its natural environment, but the direction is clear and the policies are already having an impact.

Obstacles to the Trump Rollback  

President Trump has an uneven ability to reverse U.S. climate and energy policy. In some arenas he can abruptly undo his predecessor’s policies, while in others he faces substantial headwinds.

One possibility confronting environmental advocates is that Trump will abandon the United Nations-led climate change negotiations altogether. The United States has been a party to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since the U.S. Senate ratified it in 1992. Given that the UNFCCC entered into existence in 1994 and its three-year withdrawal probation expired in 1997, Trump could legally withdraw the United States from the convention. However, since the agreement was ratified by the Senate and not through an executive agreement, withdrawal would be a complex process. Currently, it is unclear whether or not the executive branch requires congressional or senatorial approval for such a withdrawal, and what role, if any, the judicial branch would play in the process were a disagreement to arise.

The Paris Agreement, conversely, was entered into by executive order and without Senate approval. U.S. negotiators worked to promote language in the agreement allowing them to claim that it was not a treaty and therefore not subject to congressional ratification. The wider negotiating community, in part with a potential about-face in the U.S. presidency in mind, stipulated that no country can withdraw from the Paris Agreement for three years after its signing and then only by providing one year’s notice. If President Trump chooses to officially abandon America’s Paris commitments, withdrawal could not be finalized until November 2020.

Either in the interim or in lieu of these measures, President Trump hopes to roll back regulations designed to help the United States meet its international commitments. The Clean Power Plan is chief among these, and seeks to limit carbon emissions from power plants by requiring plants to cut their emissions by 32 percent by 2030. Estimates suggest that if fully implemented, the CPP would reduce American coal consumption by at least 26 percent by 2040. The CPP was already being challenged in court by a coalition of state governors who opposed the law prior to Trump’s election. If the courts strike down the law, then President Trump may not have to act on it at all to be free of the CPP. Even if it survives the initial legal challenge, however, because the CPP was passed by executive order rather than legislation the Trump administration can overturn it with relative ease.

The silver lining for environmental advocates is that even if the CPP is undone, the longstanding U.S. Clean Air Act (CAA) may provide the foundation to continue to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly found that the CAA gives the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate such emissions. In Massachusetts v. EPA, the Court determined that greenhouse gases fit within the CAA’s definition of air pollution; a finding that has since been upheld. States and other stakeholders may call on the CAA -- through stipulations such as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards -- to challenge practices such as coal sector expansions that would lead to greenhouse gas emissions growth in the United States.

Beyond regulation, business and market forces will ultimately prevent the United States from completely devolving into the energy systems of the past. The American shale gas production boom will continue to make coal production and consumption less economically attractive, at least in the near-term. The clean energy market is growing steadily and may reach $6 trillion in value by 2030. In light of this, 630 American businesses and investors -- including General Mills, DuPont, and Hewlett Packard -- signed an open letter to then President-elect Trump and Congress imploring them to protect and continue supporting low carbon policies, continued U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement, and investment in a low carbon economy.  

U.S. competitiveness abroad depends on it not fully retreating from the clean energy growth space. China is planning to invest $360 billion in renewable energy through 2020, creating 13 million jobs and solidifying its place as a leading clean energy consumer and exporter. If America recedes from these opportunities, China and other countries will fill the void.

The Promise of Subnational Action

Washington is not the only regulatory game in town.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has committed the state to move forward on its renewable energy track with or without Washington, and has a foundation of cooperation with China on which to build. In 2015, Shenzhen, Guangdong, and Los Angeles signed a memorandum of understanding to expand best practices for reducing emissions, while a collection of institutes pledged to design and implement carbon market training programs in China and to introduce California’s zero-emission vehicle credit trading mechanism in Beijing. Los Angeles and Beijing have planned a litany of cooperative measures on low-carbon urban planning and transportation, while Los Angeles and Zhenjiang have become the first cities to endorse the Subnational Global Climate Leadership memorandum. Signatories to this agreement have committed to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 80 to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 or achieve a per capita annual emissions target of less than 2 metric tons by 2050, while seeking to influence global climate negotiations through local actions.   

Nine states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have operated a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative since 2008 that caps carbon emissions from power plants and facilitates traded emissions credits among participants. Thirty-five U.S. states have some form of mandate for producing more electricity from non-fossil fuel sources. Seattle has committed to become carbon-neutral by 2050 and has an implementation plan focusing on transportation, building efficiency, and waste disposal.

These areas are densely populated engines of the U.S. economy, and their combined climate mitigation efforts may significantly alter America’s emissions trajectory in spite of countervailing policies from President Trump.

Beyond the Federal Government

Those working to address global climate should find ways to circumvent the Trump administration policy rollbacks and promote actions that transcend his ability to deregulate the U.S. economy. China can play a role in ensuring that the United States does not fully derail U.N.-led climate negotiations, and continue to engage in subnational cooperation efforts with symbiotic benefits.

In the United States, the business case for cleaner energy systems will not abate, and even in the worst diplomatic scenario -- U.S. withdrawal from the UNFCCC -- the arc toward sustainable development will continue in many of the most populous and economically dynamic parts of the country. States and other key stakeholders will challenge the rollback of environmental and climate regulation in courts, and influential businesses will continue to promote climate change regulations. Trump’s impact on the U.S. emissions trajectory may ultimately be significant, but it will not overwhelmingly reverse current trends.  

In the meantime, China will continue its self-interested energy transition and -- despite its enormous emissions profile -- assume a mantle of global climate leadership in the process.